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  • Issayas Tesfamariam

"The Miracle of Massawa*" Revisited: A Conversation with Ted Pollard, grandson of Commande

Eritreans celebrated the 28th anniversary of the liberation of the port city of Massawa last month. The liberation of Massawa, an old picturesque beautiful city with its incredibly blue glittering sea, was the beginning of the end of the Derg.

With the loss of Massawa in 1990, the Derg regularly bombed the city. In 1941, forty-nine years prior to the Derg's defeat at Massawa, the Italians had surrendered Massawa to the British. Eritrea's geo-strategic location had a great impact on the war efforts during WWII. In the aforementioned endeavor Gura** (for the Air Force) and Massawa (for the Navy) played major roles.

Commander Edward Ellsberg, in 1941, was commissioned by the United States Navy (USN) to salvage the greatest mass of wrecks in the world (then) and to make the naval base in Massawa, Eritrea, reusable.

This is what commander Edward Ellsberg had to say about the destruction in Massawa, in his book, Under the Red Sea Sun.

In the three harbors of Massawa waterfront and its off-lying

islands lay a fleet of some forty vessels, German and Italian.

Freighters, passenger ships, warships, crowded every berth

which in addition, in the north harbor were two irreplaceable

floating steel dry docks. A tornado of explosions swept Massawa

waterfront as exploding bombs, strategically placed far below

their water lines, blew out the sides and bottoms of ships by the

dozens. The invaluable machinary in the naval shops were

smashed with sledge hammers. Electric cranes were tipped

into the sea. Everything in the way of destruction that Italian

ingenuity could suggest to make Massawa forever useless to its

approaching conqueror was painstakingly carried through. When

the last bomb had gone up and the last ship had gone down, the

Italian Admiral (Bonnetti) commanding rubbed his hands in

satisfaction over such a mass of scuttled ships as the world had

never seen before. The he surrendered Massawa. (pg.11)

To talk about Commander Ellsberg, I invited Mr. Ted Pollard, maternal grandson of Commander Ellsberg.

Mr. Ted Pollard

Issayas: Would you briefly tell us about yourself?

Ted: I am 72 and presently live near Philadelphia, but am moving to Merida, Mexico sometime this year. I have one son and two granddaughters.

Issayas: What was the significance of the salvage of Italian ships in Massawa during WWII? In other words, what did it contribute to the ongoing war (WWII) at the time?

Ted: The salvage at Massawa was extremely important because otherwise damaged ships had to go 10,000 miles to another repair facility. Having a good port close to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean got warships back into action much, much faster.

Issayas: Even though it is described in detail in Under the Red Sea Sun, for people who have never heard of your grandfather's mission at the time, would you briefly highlight the challenges that he had to face?

Ted: The Italians had destroyed all the workshops and equipment, or so they thought. The British had tried to salvage some of the ships, drydocks and a big crane with no luck after over a year. Ellsberg, with a very small American crew and no salvage equipment in the beginning, raised the first large drydock in 9 days. It was called the Miracle of Massawa, as nobody believed it could be done. The British even bet the Americans $2,000 – and lost! Ellsberg is my mother’s father.

Issayas: Did you grow up listening to the stories of your grandfather's mission? And did you understand the significance at the time or learned/understood it later?

Ted: My grandfather was a great raconteur, so I heard many stories of his life when I was growing up. He was very proud of his work at Massawa and I have his uniforms and pith helmet as part of my historical archives. I have about 100 letters he sent to my grandmother from Massawa, and her letters. His letters are on his website and shed light on what was going on and what he faced. I also have about 300 photos of Massawa and the salvage which I will be putting up on his website this Spring. He explained the significance to me, and its importance became clearer as I learned more about WWII as I grew older.

Commander Edward Ellsberg

Ships in Massawa harbor

Eritrean workers

HMS Dido – 1st British ship to use raised drydock

1st US flag to fly over captured enemy territory in WW II – Massawa

Issayas: In his book written in mid-1940s, your grandfather had wished for the UN to recognize the aspiration of the Eritrean people for the independence of their country, Eritrea. That did not happen at that time, but it was after thirty years of an armed struggle that they achieved their independence. Your grandfather died in 1983 while Eritrea was not independent. Do you recall your grandfather following events in Eritrea before he died?

Ted: I really don’t recall any discussions about Eritrea after the war.

Issayas: Why do you think the British were not able to salvage the ships/drydocks and the crane?

Ted: They did not have the skills or equipment to raise the ships. They tried for 18 months and accomplished nothing.As I have mentioned earlier, Ellsberg raised the 1st drydock in 9 days with a few men and reclaimed equipment salvaged from the Italian workshops. It was called “The Miracle of Massawa” in the news media.

Issayas: What I find fascinating is that when your grandfather volunteered in 1941 for the Navy (he was already a retired Navy commander), he happened to be at the right time and the right place to be sent to Massawa. Right? This is zeigiest. It might be a speculation, but do you think the war in the area would have been prolonged?

Ted: Yes, he went to Washington the day after Pearl Harbor to offer his help. They needed him in Pearl Harbor, but another salvage officer was coming back from Asia, so was closer; they offered him Iceland, which he refused as he wanted more action. Without the Massawa repair base, ships had to go something like 10,000 miles more for repair, so it was critical to the war effort to get Massawa back in action as quickly as possible to service ships damaged in the Mediterranean.

Issayas: How long are Commander Ellsberg's letters (average) to his wife (your grandmother)? How often did he write to her? How long was he in Massawa?

Ted: He wrote 72 letters to my grandmother from the time he landed in Massawa on April 2, 1942, until he left on November 24, 1942***. Most letters were 2-3 pages, handwritten on 8 1/2x11” paper.

Issayas: While researching on your grandfather, I came across the following: Ellsberg's 1931 book, Pigboats, inspired the 1933 movie, Hell Below, starring Robert Montgomery, Robert Young, Walter Huston, and Madge Evans. His book Hell on Ice was adapted for an episode of Orson Welles's The Mercury Theatre on the Air that aired October 9, 1938, on CBS Radio. An adaptation was also presented on Welles's The Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air, broadcast August 9, 1946.

Ted: Grandfather did quite a few radio shows. I have a few on his website and have several more that should be added in the next few weeks. They will also be transcribed, and I have 9 oral history tapes that will also be added shortly. Luckily I have a guy helping me with all of this. My only function will be to oversee what’s being added and to do captions for nearly 1k pix!

Yes, there was a special book edition. I have about 50 still pix, movie playbills, posters, and yesterday I got an announcement of the movie with several pix I had never seen before. Also have some large lobby cards.

Issayas: Have you ever visited Massawa ? If not, do you plan to visit Massawa?

Ted: No, I have not visited Massawa, but would love to! I would like to walk where he walked and experience the heat, people and architecture, which I find fascinating.

Ted, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your grandfather's story. Much appreciated!


*Commander John D. Alden (United States Navy) in his article "Salvage Man" states that the US press hailed Commander Edward Ellsberg's achievements as "the miracle of Massawa". Naval History; Annapolis Vol. 11 #5, (Sept./Oct. 1997): 26. In the same article, Commander Alden states: Commander Ellsberg is one of the most prolific authors to ever graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. Comm. Ellsberg studied naval architecture and marine engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had written 17 including award winning books. Commander Ellsberg was awarded in New York the Legion of Merit for his achievement in Massawa. The British Admiralty named him a commander of the Order of the British Empire.

**John W. Swancara in his book Project 19: A Mission Most Secret states that President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a secret Air Depot to be operated by American civilian volunteers under the direction of Douglass Aircraft Company in Gura', Eritrea. It was classified as secret and was given the title of "Project 19". More on this another time.

*** General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, called Commander Edward Ellsberg from Eritrea to become chief salvage officer for the western Mediterranean.

For pictures, audio interviews, and more on Commander Ellsberg, please visit:

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